Malcolm Young has died and Guitars Exchange would like to pay tribute to him. The
news has come to us while we plan the following articles, among which is a
special about rhythm guitarists, in which his name was the first to come to our
minds, along with Steve Cropper. Despite Malcolm ‘being in the shadow’ because he gave the spotlight
to his younger brother Angus, his importance in AC/DC
was key, as he was responsible for many of the recognizable guitar riffs, and he
also co-wrote the band’s best known songs with Angus. As Angus himself said,
Malcolm was “the motor of the band”, the
piston that allowed the rest of the machine to work. “Hell’s Bells” will
continue to ring out, but things will never be the same.
The importance of Malcolm within the band is enormous, as he was a co-founder, the person who took the majority of the decisions, and the one that defined their sound. It could be said that he was the heart of the band, who marked the rhythm for the rest, and who formed its base, which allowed Angus to fly from it. Perhaps the phrase that best defined him came from Keith Richards - one which we have highlighted on our front page - “Everyone talks about Rock, these days; the problem is they forget about the Roll”. Well Malcolm Young is one of those who clearly never forgot the Roll, to the extent that when people asked him to describe his type of music, he did not say rock, or hard rock, or heavy, but chose a description as simple and irresistible as his own style: rock ‘n’ roll.
Malcolm’s biggest influence when he first went to grab a guitar was his brother - not the one many might think about, but - his eldest, George Young. A short time after the family moved from their native Scotland to Australia, George formed a band called The Easybeats, which became something like the antipodean Beatles. George Young’s house used to be surrounded by hysterical fans who went wild over him; Malcolm and Angus took note and strapped a guitar on their shoulders.
Malcolm was next to form a band called the Velvet Underground; although it had nothing to do with the legendary band of Lou Reed. When Malcolm’s group split up in 1973 he formed AC/DC together with his younger brother Angus, at 20 and 18 years old respectively. Their first singer was Dave Evans, and with him they gained quite a strong a local following, which allowed them to support Lou Reed when he toured Australia in 1974. But things really went ‘click’ when Evans was substituted by Bon Scott, another Scot who had emigrated to Australia as a boy, and who was a friend of George Young. Scott added the perfect voice for the brutal and raw music of the Young brothers. The electric current had found its power source. That same year they recorded their debut album, High Voltage, with a session drummer, and George on bass. Few people know that at that stage the Young brothers shared duties as solo guitarists, and Malcolm can be heard playing lead guitar on songs like Soul Stripper, You Ain't Got a Hold on Me, Little Lover and Show Business.
It was Malcolm himself who decided on the roles that they would become eternally famous for. He told Angus that from then on he would do the solos and that Malcolm would take a step back and focus on rhythm guitar. That was how Malcolm defined the roles within the band and put all the focus on Angus. That said, from that time forward Malcolm, from the shadow, became the motor of the band. By the time they recorded Let there be Rock they had hit on their winning formula, which they would then polish to the point of perfection in their following three albums.
Their sound is notorious and 100% recognizable; each of Malcolm’s chords is his, and his alone. His guitar of choice is as recognizable as the mythical SG of his brother, the Gretsch G6131 known as the Gretsch Jet Firebird, which that legendary brand would later make into a Signature edition for Malcolm: the Gretsch G6131MY. His amplifiers were usually Marshall, whether they were a JTM100 Super Amp, the Super Bass or a 100 Watt Plexi Super Lead. When Malcolm composed and Angus joined him, they launched riff ideas at each other, and when something did not sound AC/DC, they rejected it. Malcolm knew the band’s strength, and he decided to focus on it and pursue it to the end, something that two his clearest references had also done; Chuck Berry and Keith Richards.
The death of Bon Scott was a shock and it arrived at their best moment, when they had just recorded the landmark Highway to Hell. The band had achieved top form, delivering perfect riffs for the cavernous voice of Scott; from the iconic song that gave the album its title - one of the best rock songs of all times - to their tribute to 60s British blues, Beating Around the Bush with their mix of Baby please don´t go by Them and Oh Well by Fleetwood Mac, as well as showing their love for the ‘Chuckberry fields forever’ on If you want blood, or the threatening blues of Night prowler that serves as an epitaph for the charismatic Scott.
But anyone who thought that the Young brothers would lose their grip after the loss of Scott were very much mistaken. Back in Black responds to a very difficult question: what do you do when in the best moment of your career your singer dies through drowning in his own vomit? Well you get together with your own brother, you pull from your sleeve some of the best riffs since Led Zeppelin IV, you paint your next cover black to pay tribute to the deceased, and you deliver to the world one of the most essential albums to define what is the best in rock ‘n’ roll. That is something that Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the Rolling Stones would all understand. Brian Johnson took over from Scott, and the band delivered its best collection of songs to date, selling 50 million copies around the world in the process.
That was the band’s peak - not to depreciate anything that came after, but they never achieved those heights again. That said, the classics continued arriving with songs like For Those About to Rock (We Salute You), Who Made Who and Thunderstruck, with the Young brothers returning again to the same formula, and always being faithful to themselves. It wasn’t all a bed of roses, however, and in 1988 Malcolm was temporarily substituted by his nephew Stevie, while he tried to recover from his alcohol addiction. The ghost of Scott’s death continued to haunt the band, and Angus did not doubt in telling his brother that he didn’t want him following in the same steps as their singer. He didn’t - Malcolm recovered and returned to the band, and for years they were one of the most reliable live acts in history, with Malcolm marking the rhythm, and Angus floating somewhere above. But Malcolm’s health was deteriorating and in 2014 the band issued a statement saying that he would not play again. We then learnt that he was suffering from dementia, an illness that already had been affecting him, as for the band’s final tours he had to learn over again some of the songs that he himself had written.
Angus decided to go on, almost certainly with Malcolm’s blessing, because he had always felt it important that ‘the thing’ would roll (Rock and ROLL). But also for the millions of fans at world level, who had always been a priority concern for Malcolm. Now he has died, a month after his brother George, and it is the moment to back in black. Malcolm Young did not need any great solo to be remembered as a great guitarist, because from Chuck Berry to Bo Diddley, rock ‘n’ roll has been built on rhythm and few understood that better than Malcolm, the man who gave us, among many other things, the riff of Back in Black. If that is not worth more than a million soulless solos, that is because you don’t like rock... and roll.